Consciously watching for small wonders in the world around you during an otherwise ordinary walk could amplify the mental health benefits of the stroll, according to an interesting new psychological study of what the study’s authors call “awe walks.”
In the study, people who took a fresh look at the objects, moments and vistas that surrounded them during brief, weekly walks felt more upbeat and hopeful in general than walkers who did not. The findings are subjective but indicate that awe walks could be a simple way to combat malaise and worry. They also underscore that how we think and feel during exercise can alter how the exercise alters us.
There already is considerable evidence, of course, that exercise, including walking, can buoy our moods. Past studies have linked increased physical activity to greater happiness and reduced risks for anxiety, depression and other mental ills.
Feeling a sense of awe also seems to up our overall feelings of gladness and improve health. A somewhat nebulous emotion, awe generally is defined as the sense that you are in the presence of something larger and more consequential than yourself and that this something is mysterious and ineffable. In past studies, people who reported feeling awe also tended to have less emotional stress and lower levels of substances related to body-wide inflammation.
But no studies had looked into whether mixing awe and activity might somehow augment the benefits of each — or, on the other hand, reduce them. So, for the new study, which was published in September in Emotion, scientists affiliated with the Memory and Aging Center at the University of California, San Francisco, and other institutions decided to start teaching older walkers how to cultivate awe.
They concentrated on people in their 60s, 70s and 80s, an age when some people can face heightened risks for declining mental health. The researchers also had a ready-made volunteer pool, consisting of men and women already participating in an ongoing U.C.S.F. study of how to age well.
The scientists asked 52 of the study volunteers if they would mind adding a weekly 15-minute walk to their normal schedules.